Who we are and what we care about
The Tinkering Studio
A Studio workshop for playful invention, investigation, and collaboration.
The Tinkering Studio is an immersive, active, creative place at the Exploratorium where museum visitors can slow down, become deeply engaged in an investigation of scientific phenomena, and make something—a piece of a collaborative chain reaction, for example—that represents their ideas and aesthetic.
In the Tinkering Studio, visitors are invited to explore a curiosity-driven exhibit, chat with a featured artist, or investigate a range of phenomena with staff artists, scientists, educators, and others by participating in a collaborative activity. A large, eclectic assortment of materials, tools, and technologies are provided for people to use as they explore and create.
The goal of the Tinkering Studio is to support the creative ideas of museum visitors, external collaborators, and staff. It provides a place where people can explore together in meaningful ways that revolve around visitors’ ideas, questions, and explorations, enabling them to build an evolving understanding of the world.
The Learning Studio
The heart of research and development for the Tinkering Studio.
Through research residencies, professional development workshops, and field research projects, the Learning Studio supports a diverse array of explorations in art, science, and technology—explorations that emphasize the documentation and dissemination of thinking and learning.
The Tinkering Studio Philosophy
The Tinkering Studio is based on a constructionist theory of learning which asserts that knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to learner, but actively constructed by the mind of the learner. Constructionism suggests that learners are more likely to make new ideas while actively engaged in making an external artifact. The Tinkering Studio supports the construction of knowledge within the context of building personally meaningful artifacts, such as marble machines or light paintings. We design opportunities for people to “think with their hands” in order to construct meaning and understanding.
The Tinkering Studio Design Principles
As our activities continue to evolve, so will our principles. The following design principles represent our current best understanding of our own work.
Thoughtful approaches to interacting with materials, tools, and technologies.
Activities and investigations build on visitors' prior interests and knowledge. Materials and phenomena are evocative and invite inquiry. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is a means, not an end in itself. Multiple pathways are readily available. Activities and investigations encourage learners to complexify their thinking over time.
Guides for the design and use of the studio setting.
Examples from past projects and current activities are situated to seed ideas and inspiration. Studio layout supports individual initiative and autonomy. Activity adjacencies encourage the cross-pollination of ideas. Activity station design enables cross-talk and invites collaboration.
Principles that inform the interaction between staff and museum visitors
The facilitation is welcoming and intended to spark interest. Facilitators try to focus visitor attention, based on individual paths of understanding. Facilitation should strengthen understanding by helping learners clarify their intentions through reflective conversation.
Tinkering Studio Bios
Learning Studio Director
As director of the Learning Studio, I see my role at the Exploratorium as an advocate for making as a way of knowing. I believe deeply in studio pedagogy, and the ability we all have to think with our hands.
As an undergrad working in environmental design, I came to see museums as places that recognize this approach. I started my museum career as a volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, soon met people from the Exploratorium and other institutions, and quickly realized how deeply a museum philosophy resonated with my own.
Now, years later, after pursuing graduate studies in education and technology, I am even more committed to the idea that constructionism is an incredibly powerful way of learning, and that aesthetics matter a great deal. These two ideas are often overlooked in more formal education settings, outside of kindergarten or graduate school. Informal learning spaces for making and tinkering offer people a chance to connect to their own learning in a deeply personal way, which is why I’m thrilled to be able to work with such a delightfully quirky group of people in the Tinkering Studio. Together, we are working to develop experiences with art, science, and technology that are playful and inquisitive, and draw on the collaborative and participatory aspects that a museum environment can offer. I look forward to seeing what develops in the coming years.
Director of the Making Collaborative
I am curious about how people develop personal and unique understandings of the world for themselves. More speciﬁcally, my interest in how environments can be designed to foster learning and encourage deep thinking led to a graduate degree in education design and technology, and ultimately to a leadership role within the Learning Studio. With a background in ﬁne arts, ﬁlmmaking, and photography, I apply the act of careful observation to much of my work as a facilitator. I have been working at this for 20 years, with audiences as diverse as museum visitors, primary school students, Tibetan monks, prison inmates, and graduate school researchers.
I grew up in Tanzania near the cliffs and coves of the Indian Ocean. We spent a lot of time mapping our imagination onto the landscape and trees, making toys out of sticks and old tires, uncovering snakes, avoiding the neighborhood dogs, drinking nectar out of ﬂowers and playing in banana trees. No television, no touch screens, just my friends and an abundance of energy and curiosity. I can't articulate how those early years informed my current approach toward materials and making, but I feel like my youth played a role.
I have a background in trying. I don’t have formal education in music, or woodworking, electronics, aerodynamics, architecture, or design, but I give myself permission to enter into any of those ﬁelds and play around. Following my curiosity has allowed me to meet a wide variety of people and travel the world as an artist. Recently I received a MacArthur Fellowship and have since begun sneaking around estuaries and rivers in a kayak.
Scientiﬁc Content Developer
I was born and raised in Italy, which means I have an accent and strong opinions about coffee. Currently I am a scientiﬁc content developer at the Exploratorium, but before that I spent more years than I care to count in academia, earning a graduate degree while studying how the brain learns and pays attention to its surroundings. Eventually I moved away from research and into the real world, and was lucky that my ﬁrst foray “out there” was at the Exploratorium. I started as an Explainer, and quickly became enamored of the way this amazing place explores learning, teaching, and life.
One of the most powerful lessons I have learned while working here is that science and the process of inquiry are really best used as a means rather than an end. Tinkering gives people permission to explore phenomena at their own pace, asking the questions they care about; I think my role as a facilitator and designer is to create and encourage everybody’s own path of knowledge.
If I met you in person I would do a magic trick for you.
Learning Studio Coordinator
I came to the museum after graduating with a degree in literature from UC San Diego. Though I didn't take a single science class in college, I found a place at the Exploratorium as part of the amazing team of ﬁeld trip Explainers. The ﬁrst couple of years on the job were a crash course in all the science and math I missed in high school and college, taught by incredibly passionate scientists and artists who frequently blew things up. I am now an educator in the Tinkering Studio; I focus on building connections and sharing facilitation strategies between our core development group and the Explainers.
Throughout my tenure here, I've been most excited about telling visiting kids that there is no right or wrong way to explore the exhibits, and that they have to ﬁgure things out on their own. Now that I'm more involved with developing activities and classes, I've been thinking about how different materials and design environments affect how kids and adults learn.
Just as my perception of science changed as a ﬁeld trip Explainer, my time spent working in the Tinkering Studio has been a journey to uncover my abilities as a builder of objects and maker of experiences. I frequently contribute to our blogs and upload YouTube videos. In my spare time I cook gourmet lunches, solve crossword puzzles, climb rocks and develop elaborate new ﬁst bumps. I also consider it my solemn duty to represent the Tinkering Studio if we are ever challenged to a dance-off competition.
I am an exhibit developer at the Exploratorium because I love to spark people’s curiosity about the world. I got here as quickly as I could, but it took me a while to develop the eclectic set of skills that come in handy in this line of work. I had to spend some time learning how to sew, and weld, and build things. I went to Rhode Island School of Design, which helped, as did teaching science classes and working in a toy store. What really helps is being curious, and I strive to be a fearless tryer of things that may or may not work. My projects at the Exploratorium that do work include a musical bench, a telescope that makes everything look like a little toy, a tiny leaky faucet, and a stroboscopic camera.
Learning Studio Project Coordinator
After many visits to the Exploratorium while growing up in the Bay Area, I knew that this was a place where I could meld my curiosity about science and the way the world works with my interest in art and creativity. I remember exploring light, shadows, and color, and being inspired to continue my investigations at home, freezing balloons filled with water and food coloring and constructing paper bag costumes with tissue paper collages. I have a background in informal education through summer camps, after school programs, and being an Explainer here. I am interested in creating atmospheres and activities where children and adults feel safe to explore their ideas and create objects that express them. Working with the Tinkering Studio has helped me realize the power of immersing myself in the role of the learner. Whether I'm playing with materials for an activity for the first time or facilitating a visitor building her first marble machine, there are constant opportunities to discover new ways of working with materials and with people.
I have been tap dancer since I was very little and would be happy to teach you how to shuffle.
Scientific Content Developer
I grew up in a small town in Southern Germany with a rich tradition in toy making. Tinkering and playing in our Learning Studio takes me back to the great times I had as a kid, inventing toys and games in my granddad’s toy workshop. In the 15 years between my early tinkering days and my arrival at the Learning Studio, I studied earthquakes in the Chilean Andes, satellite imaging in the boreal forests of Ontario, and Physics and Math in Erlangen, Germany. Throughout my studies and travels I became more and more fascinated with the creative and playful aspects of the natural sciences. When I came to San Francisco in 2005, I found a happy symbiosis between teaching, experimenting, and making things at the Exploratorium.
Group Six Director
I direct Group Six at the Exploratorium, a program group that focuses on advancing, articulating, and advocating core strategic programmatic directions at the museum. The Tinkering Studio and Making Initiative is one of four main program areas in Group Six. My own work focuses on building understanding about the ways different settings shape opportunities for learning.
For the past few years I've worked closely with the Tinkering Studio team on a project funded by The Noyce Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to document moments of creativity and learning in the Studio with the goal of understanding how the team's design principles and choices in the space afford people opportunities to explore, create, and learn.
Learning Studio Volunteer
I was ﬁrst introduced to the world of informal learning as a project member of CAMP (Children's Art Museum and Park) in Kyoto, Japan. At CAMP, where children discover means of self-expression through making things, I served as a facilitator, activity planner, co-teacher at collaborating schools and universities, and liaison with similar institutions overseas. Watching children deeply engage with technologies and crafting materials gave me the strong belief that learning should take the form of outputs instead of inputs. I joined the Exploratorium as a volunteer in 2009, and am constantly impressed and amazed at the tinkering culture in the Learning Studio. What interests me most in tinkering is ﬁnding the gap between the expected and the unexpected, and trying to make things work.
Learning Studio Volunteer
As a child growing up in Oakland, California, I spent a lot of time in Bay Area science, maritime, and railroad museums. I’ve always been fascinated by mechanisms, and I seek to notice the everyday technology most people take for granted. I’m interested in the surprising complexity of things, like bus doors that move simultaneously in and sideways into their slots. I’m also intrigued and concerned that most people either ignore or do not understand the complexity of the technologies they interact with daily.
After graduating Oberlin College in 2009 with a degree in Visual Arts and a concentration in Physics, I began working at the Exploratorium with the goal of exploring object design in a way that allows access to the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ In the Tinkering Studio I strive to develop tools from common, unwanted or unlikely materials, and I’m interested in how the creative process is affected when people are presented with an unusual set of tools or mode of making. Currently I'm making a series of tiny homemade digital projectors and am designing projects and curriculum for the Oakland Discovery Center, which provides underserved children access to scientiﬁc exploration.
Director of Visitor Research
I have always been passionate about learning. My mother, a high school biology teacher, nurtured my curiosity about natural phenomena from an early age. I remember sitting in my third grade classroom, poring over one of her biology textbooks until I had memorized all the bones in the human body. When I grew older and went to college, I became interested in physics and its own brand of thinking skills—problem-solving rather than memorizing. Tutoring other students in the subject, I wondered why certain parts of the physics curriculum invariably posed the same difficulties for them. When I found a whole ﬁeld of study—cognitive science—devoted to understanding how people learn, even how they learn physics, I was hooked.
For the past 12 years in the Exploratorium’s Visitor Research Department, I’ve studied how museum visitors engage in inquiry together at our exhibits. I'm interested in what science learning looks like in the museum, how and why particular exhibit and program designs promote learning, and how learning happens through social interactions of group members (especially parents and children). My outside hobby of woodworking has served me well in these endeavors, allowing me to occasionally build my own exhibits in order to investigate a particular design question. In the Tinkering Studio, I hope to help document learning as it happens and to study the design features that seem to promote it.
Our work is informed, and our practice shaped, by the contributions and conversations with these remarkable individuals. We like to call them our "critical friends", because they offer us in equal measure honest criticism, as well as heartfelt support of our efforts. Our work would not be possile, and certainly not as good, without their insight and knowledge.
History and Inspiration
The Tinkering Studio is the latest incarnation of a project that started in the year 2000 called the PIE (Playful and Inventive Explorations) Network, where MIT, the Exploratorium, and several other museums began to experiment with science and art activities using the Cricket (a small programmable device) and other new digital technologies. The PIE Network resulted in a number of innovative educational activities combining science, art, and technology.
In 2003, the Exploratorium led a new approach to professional development through the PIE Institute, which continued the work of the PIE Network by sharing PIE ideas with a larger audience of educators from museums and other kinds of informal learning environments.
In 2009, the Exploratorium started prototyping a new space on the exhibition floor called the Tinkering Studio to bring these activities to the general public.
Our External Collaborators include:
Brightworks, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, Computer Clubhouse Network, Learning Technologies Center (SMM), MAKE Magazine, MIT Media Lab, TechShop, Pixar Animation Studios, The ARK (Dublin Ireland), and The Innovative Teacher Project.
The following is a collection of resources that inspire and inform our work. Click here.